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The Kalahandi Syndrome:
Starvation in Spite of Plenty


Some call it a "perennially drought-stricken" area with "perpetual drought" conditions existing for the past three decades. Others think that it is "practically impossible" to mitigate human suffering from an area which is ecologically devastated, the only viable "alternative" being to continuously provide food aid and financial support. The hunger and misery that stalks Kalahandi is known to everyone. But what remains unknown is that starvation and hunger exists amidst plenty.

As the piteous small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labourers starve and wait endlessly for the rice they produce on the lands owned by absentee-landlords, the harvest finds it way to the procurement centres. Kalahandi and Koraput districts are, in fact, amongst the major contributors of rice to the Food Corporation of India. In 1996-97, Kalahandi district alone provided more than 42,000 tonnes of rice to for the central food kitty.

Kalahandi is an area of foodgrain "surplus", contributing a fourth of Orissa’s share to the procurement agencies. In 1993-94, Kalahandi provided 24,000 tonnes of rice. The next year, in 1994-95, rice procurement was a little less at 22,000 tonnes. And in 1995-96, procurement shot up to 37,700 tonnes. The paradox of plenty, unfortunately, is not only confined to Kalahandi. India too is faced with the Kalahandi syndrome – food stocks piling up to unmanageable levels at a time when more than 320 million hungry and poor do not have the means to purchase it.

With 87 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, the struggle to eke out a living is an onerous task. More so, considering that the abundant resources, including land and forests, are owned by the "gauntiya", the feudal landlords. For the poor, human bondage and surviving on the charities of the moneylenders, is perhaps an inescapable route. The innocent, simple and illiterate tribals end up borrowing money at the time of distress only to find themselves slipping deeper and deeper into debt. Although the moneylenders vehemently deny, the annual rate of interest comes to about 460 per cent!

Agriculture being limited to the areas where irrigation is assured, it is the collection of non-timber forest produce that provides a livelihood to a majority of the families. Among the important minor forest produce are tendu leaves, bamboos, ayurvedic plants, sal, resin and honey. The Tribal Development Corporation, set up to eliminate the middlemen in the trade, ironically operates through middlemen. One private company alone has the monopoly marketing rights over 28 items of non-timber forest produce. And every time the district administration tries to break the monopoly, the collector is transferred.

Such is the degree of exploitation that even the poorest of the poor are not spared. Tendu leaves fetch a price of 35 paise for 60 dried leaves. Orissa government has raised the price this year, by one paisa. After several years, the price of broomstick has been raised from Rs 4 to Rs 10, an increase of 250 per cent. Bamboo is another major produce of Kalahandi, which brings employment to some 10,000 families for about five months a year. And yet, the wage rate at Rs 2.56 for cutting and tying a bundle of ten bamboo sticks has been deliberately kept low at the initiation of a private paper mill.

After a lot of persuasion, the wage rate has this year been increased to Rs 3, still a cheap raw material for the paper industry. "Chiroungi", another edible forest produce, is purchased at prices varying between Rs 5 to 12 a kg. At Raipur, in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, it sells for a minimum of Rs 300 a kg.

In Bolangir district, from where several starvation deaths were reported in 1996-97, the government has failed to assure marketing of even paddy, cotton and oilseeds at remunerative prices. Even the district administration is critical of the "exploitation" being undertaken by government agencies like FCI, the Cotton Corporation of India, Nafed and Trifed. But what is surprising is that the Bolangir town bears no semblance to the grim realities that exist just a km away. Even at the recent elections for Zila Parishads, some candidates reportedly spent more than Rs one crore during electioneering. Bolangir town, dominated by the rich trading marwari community, boasts of at least four air-conditioned restaurants. The brisk sale of silk sarees from the numerous shops hides the brazen nakedness that prevails all around.

The extent of poverty and malnutrition that afflicts Kalahandi belt is beyond the comprehension of the standard economic models. And it is perhaps for this reason that the economists and sociologists have not been able to see the human side of continuous suffering and servility. If development assistance is the lone measure of economic growth, Kalahandi has failed miserably. Not even 15 paise out of a rupee of development aid has percolated down to the people who needed it most. The real beneficiaries are the government officials, who more often than not bribe their way to stay put somewhere in the four districts of western Orissa.

Starvation deaths too do not bring solitude to the immediate relatives of the dead. Dombudha Majhy, a resident of Mahulkot village in Khariar block reportedly died of starvation in July 1996. His widow, Gomati, was provided with a grant of Rs 5,000. Overzealous officials promised to build a concrete house for her under the Indira Awas Yojna. Her own mud-plastered house was demolished. A year later, the house remains incomplete. Staying with her brother in the adjoining hut, Gomati curses her fate. She has already spent Rs 2,500 from the grant she had received, lamenting "This house has become a bigger headache for me." Elsewhere, all out efforts are to underplay starvation deaths, worst crime in a civilised society. Villagers have often been subjected to brutality to keep the horrendous scenario under wraps.

Fifty-years after Independence, an average rural family in western Orissa survives on an annual income of less than Rs 5,000. This is exactly what some village heads think I should have if I intend to live in Kalahandi villages. Hunger, malnutrition, disease and even starvation are, therefore, inevitable. The immediate task for the powers that be is to go in for capacity building among the local communities, a task that is easier said than done. Micro-credit, restoring the traditional farming practices, tuning in agriculture technology to the needs of the people, and more importantly water conservation is perhaps the only way to bring pride among a bruised and battered community. A beginning has to be made by leaving the Kalahandi tribals alone. The government machinery should be directed to move out of the four districts. A blueprint for survival needs to be prepared in associated with some reputed and creditable NGOs.

Such tough political decisions may, however, not be forthcoming. For the simple reason that it pays to keep western Orissa poor and deprived. Kalahandi-Bolangir is being projected as a showcase of poverty. And it is perhaps for this reason that the government has even built an air-strip near Khariar Road, in the heart of the hunger belt, to enable successive prime ministers and chief ministers to derive political mileage from incessant poverty. Interestingly, every Prime Minister ever since Mrs Indira Gandhi first visited Kalahandi in 1965-66, have made it a point to shower political largesse.

Just Dig a Few Feet

While Kalahandi faces the worst drought in 30 years, ground water – a precious natural resource that can mitigate the human suffering to a large extent – remains grossly unexploited. The rain gods certainly have failed Kalahandi time and again. This year too, the rainfall was about two-third of what normally the inhospitable terrain of the perennially-drought stricken belt receives on an average. With an averaging rainfall of about 1,250-mm a year, equivalent to the national average, Kalahandi couldn’t have expected anything better. And yet, unable to put the abundant ground water to its best use, Kalahandi continues to reel under a man-made disaster.

With ground water available at a depth varying between six to 20 ft in the districts of Kalahandi and Koraput and with the water table more or less hovering around 60 ft in the worst-affected areas of Bolangir and Nuapada districts, there are no signs of any hydrological drought. Water being a limiting factor, more so at times of recurring drought spells, management of water through its efficient use and conservation holds the key to prosperity. But with the traditional water harvesting and conservation strategies abandoned, and with the focus shifting to modern technology, including ‘drip-irrigation’, it remains a futile struggle for the children of the lesser god. It is, however, another matter that even in areas which still remain untouched by roads, pepsi, coke and slice are freely available.

And yet, Kalahandi is a case study in what mismanagement of water and rampant corruption can do to a traditionally richly-endowed community. Travelling through large parts of the hunger belt, I was shocked to see the criminal waste of financial resources in the name of water conservation and the dug wells. Huge water harvesting structures, often not built technically correct, were dry. Since rainwater from the catchment areas would in any case not flow into these earthen tanks, water harvesting didn’t seem to be the objective. Villagers told this writer at a number of places that they were never consulted at the time of designing and planning the water harvesting structures. They were only involved in digging and constructing the earthen dams under the employment guarantee programmes. Not relying on the wisdom of the local knowledge has certainly been at a tremendous price, the cost however is being invariably borne by the poor.

In Bolangir district, where the soils being red laterite are low in water retention, water conservation is being even attempted through ‘drip-irrigation’, which caught the imagination

of the chief minister after a recent visit to Israel. Perhaps not realising that ‘drip-irrigation’ is an unsuitable technology for the resource-poor parched lands of Bolangir, the project has been pushed through. Although the crop loss in Bolangir is much more as compared to Kalahandi, much of it is because of the complete destruction of traditional water conservation schemes

popularly called "munda" and "katta". In fact, these systems were so effective that the Kalahandi region was never known to suffer from drought and crop loss before Independence.

The dug wells that dot the countryside relate another story. As the name suggests, these wells are dug out essentially for drinking and meeting the household requirements. The more enterprising among the tribals are using dug wells to provide protective irrigation to vegetables and fruits. But what remains unexplained is that even at the time of scarcity people are reluctant to dig wells. The government has, therefore, embarked upon a million well scheme, as part of which thousands of well are being constructed throughout the Kalahandi belt. Interestingly, the contract for the dug wells has been given to a foreign NGO which is charging Rs 22, 200 per well. The only difference being that under this scheme the wells have a concrete rim all around. Farmers told this writer that often the wells are dug at places where they serve little purpose and in any case are very expensive. Normally, it take a day’s labour for two villagers, and costing not more than Rs 1,000, to dig out a well.

The dug wells cannot irrigate a crop unless provided with an electric motor. Although the demand for providing electricity motors and power connections is growing the better alternative will be to go in for persian wheels since there is no dearth of animal power.

Misconceived Project

Considering that the irrigated area under cultivation is insignificant, plans are afoot to bring in an irrigation canal as part of the Upper Indravati Project to Kalahandi. The canal, which provided irrigation for 30,000 hectares in 1996-97, is likely to bring in an additional 50,000 hectares this year. In view of the denuded catchment, including Bafali mines, it is feared that the canal may fail to meet its irrigation targets. Some feel that given the hard graphite underground layer that exists in Kalahandi, the canal is an ill-conceived project bringing about the problem of waterlogging and salination in the years to come. Will Kalahandi soon become a wet desert?

Not only irrigation, all development schemes, and there are at least 140 different kinds of development schemes operating, are engineer-bureaucrat-contractor friendly. Such is the lopsided development model, that the development assistance provided under IRDP for all the 13 blocks of Kalahandi district last year was recovered by the state government through the sale of liquor alone. Although the development assistance has picked up substantially since 1989, and in Kalahandi alone some Rs 2 billion have been pumped in since 1990, there is hardly any visible signs of sustainable growth. In fact, all the four drought-affected districts are now vying with one another to paint a still dismal picture so as to seek more funding. They feel that Kalahandi district, which continued to be projected as a foregone conclusion, has managed to corner a larger chunk of the relief cake. The four districts are presently engaged in a race to "encash poverty".

source: http://www.dsharma.org/hunger/kalahandi.htm 24oct02

  • Devinder Sharma is an Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy. Trained as an agricultural scientist, Sharma has been the Development Editor of the Indian Express, the largest selling English language daily in India. And then quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development, food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger, and the implications of the free trade paradigm for developing countries.

    He has been a Visiting Fellow to the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines; Visiting Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich (UK); and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge (UK).

    An award-winning journalist, Sharma is associated with numerous national and international organisations and civil society groups. He has been the founding member of the Chakriya Vikas Foundation (Foundation for Cyclic Development) in India, which has been successful in socio-economic transformation and uplift, based on sustainable agriculture practices, in almost a hundred villages in the poverty stricken belt of Bihar, in north India. He also is a member of the board of directors of the Asia Rice Foundation and a member of the CGIAR’s Central Advisory Board on Intellectual Property Rights. He is also on the governing board of a formidable women group in America, called ‘Mothers for Natural Law’.

    His recent works include, three books:
  • GATT and India: The Politics of Agriculture;
  • GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair
  • In the Famine Trap

Among the forthcoming titles is: Keeping the Other Half Hungry, an incisive analysis of how the globalisation is accelerating the process of marginalisation of farmers in the Third World.

He has been speaking at various public forums, universities, institutes and groups in India and abroad on issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, trade and food security. He has delivered some 15 keynote addresses at international conferences in the past two years. He also uses his regular columns to disseminate the analysis among the masses.

He chairs an independent collective in New Delhi, called the Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security. The Forum is a collective of some of the well-known policy makers, agriculture scientists, economists, biotechnologists, farmers and environmentalists to examine and analyse the implications and fall-out of various policy decisions, both national and international. The Forum has been successful in stalling the import of cowdung and piggery droppings from Holland, stopping the import of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) into the country, banning terminator’s entry into India and stalling the introduction of genetically modified Bt cotton into India.

Contact address:
7, Triveni Apartments,
A-6, Paschim Vihar,
New Delhi - 110063

Telephone: +91 (11) 5250494
e-mail: dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in

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